Bingo-mi pingneq pingaktaaqa. - I like to win at bingo.
“Pingua! I got it!,” you might shout while reeling in a big salmon. However, this Alutiiq word is most commonly heard in Alutiiq language bingo games in classroom settings. Alutiiq students shout “pingua!” instead of “bingo!” when they fill a card. This game, used to teach Alutiiq vocabulary, is not the only popular bingo game in Alutiiq communities.
Bingo has been popular in Kodiak communities since the 1950s. As other types of Alutiiq gaming declined in the twentieth century, bingo took hold. In Ouzinkie people began playing after community movies, and in Old Harbor, bingo often followed community dances.
Today, bingo halls are popular gathering places where people visit in the evening. An evening of bingo typically runs from seven o’clock to ten or eleven. In Kodiak, people play bingo four nights a week at the Sun’aq Tribal Center. In Old Harbor, bingo takes place several times a week in the community hall. Bingo often also follows other evening events, like a basketball games or a tribal council meeting, and coincides with community celebrations like the Fourth of July.
Tribal governments run bingo, providing community entertainment, funds for tribal activities, and part-time employment to community members. Each hall hires a cashier, a caller, and a card checker.
Nanwat cikumaut. - The lakes are frozen over.
Kodiak may lie south of the frozen arctic regions of Alaska, but from 1852 to 1870, it was a known for its ice. In the 1850s the California gold rush was in full swing, and the west coast needed ice to preserve food. Russian American Company officials saw an economic opportunity and established contracts to sell ice in San Francisco.
Ice production began in Sitka in 1851. However, as the weather in southeast Alaska was not reliably cold, the enterprise moved to Kodiak’s Woody Island a year later. Here the company damned Lake Tanginak to create a broad, deep body of water for ice cutting. Nearby by they constructed support facilities; an ice storage house, a sawmill to make saw dust for packing ice, a wooden flume and iron rails to help haul the ice, a 13 mile road around the island, and a 12 acre oat field. The rails, the road, and the oat fields supported horses. The animals, imported from Russian, powered the ice-cutting saw.
Alutiiq men from Woody Island and other communities, worked for the company. In the winter, they cut and stored ice. In the summer they hunted and fished. Accounts from Woody Island indicate that Native workers received a small daily wage, along with their noon meal and rations of vodka or rum. The meal was often a salmon and potato soup thickened with graham flour.
After the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867, the Kodiak Ice Company bought the Woody Island business. It operated until 1872 when the development of the ice machine made it unprofitable to ship ice from Alaska to California.
Photo: Ice in the Ouzinkie Harbor. Photo courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Cuumi kungkirtaallianga unuk nangpiarluku iraluwakan. - Before, I used to ice skate all night sometimes when the moon was out.
By December, many of Kodiak’s small ponds are often frozen over, strong enough to support ice skaters. Alutiiq Elders recall the joy of skating. As youths, many had homemade ice skates made from evaporated milk cans. Flatten the cans, tie them to your shoes, and away you go, sliding across the ice. You can even hold your coat open to get an extra push from the wind. Ice skating remains a favorite winter pastime in Kodiak’s villages. In Akhiok, young people enjoy gliding along the ice on the lake behind the church, particularly in the moonlight.
Fashioning skates from empty milk cans is one of many examples of thrift in Alutiiq culture. Alutiiqs believe that to demonstrate respect for the natural world, they must use everything given to them with great care, wasting nothing. This means taking only what they need, making full use of the plants and animals harvested, and recycling materials as they wear. For example, the broken base of a wooden bucket might be reshaped into items like skin-working boards, and old boat skins—the worn coverings from kayaks—were used to wrap the dead for burial. In more recent times, Elders remember making stoves from empty oil barrels, sewing pieces of worn-out clothing into blankets, using old T-shirts for diapers, and stitching underwear from the soft cotton cloth of empty flour sacks. Such practices were also an economic necessity given the shortage of imported materials.
Photo: Ice Skating in Ouzinkie, ca. 1960. Courtesy Tim and Norman Smith.
Agayuwigmi pausinkaaq amlertaartut. - There are many icons in the church.
An icon is a religious image. It may be a painting, a carving, or a statue that depicts a spiritually important figure such as Christ, the Virgin Mary, saints, or angels. The veneration of icons is a central part of Russian Orthodox worship. Each image is thought to reflect the wondrous work of God spoken through the beauty of art. In Alutiiq, one variant for icon, agayuwim patriitaa, literally mean “the church’s picture.” The words pausinkaaq or puusinkaaq are related to the Russian word for “god”.
In Alutiiq communities, icons are found both in churches and in people’s houses. Although icons may be displayed in any room, many orthodox homes have an icon corner in the living room. Family members begin their days by facing this corner to say prayers. The presence of icons also ensures that positive images surround a family during daily activities.
In Alutiiq homes, icons of Saint Herman, a beloved Orthodox priest, are especially common. An oil lamp often hangs with the icons. It is suspended from the ceiling on a chain and lit for special occasions. And during the Christmas holidays, the icon corner may be decorated with colorful paper and ornaments.
Icons have been part of Alutiiq homes for over a hundred years. In sod houses of the early twentieth century, icons hung from a corner of the main room, lit by a candle on a filigree chain. The endurance of this prominent religious display illustrates the importance of orthodoxy to Alutiiq families.
Photo: Replica icon corner, Alutiiq Musem exhibit gallery.
Agayuwigmi laatanamek aturtaartut. - They use incense at the church.
Incense is an integral part of Russian Orthodox Church services. Attend worship in a Kodiak church and you will see the priest swinging an ornate metal censer. As he venerates the four sides of the altar, smoke wafts from the censer, filling the room with a pleasant smell. The censer hangs from three chains, representing the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The incense represents the sweetness of the saint’s prayers rising up to God.
The traditional base for incense is the resin from the Boswellia thurifera tree, a leafy plant found in northeast Africa and the Middle East. When harvested, the tree’s milky sap hardens into a fragrant resin known also as frankincense. Incense can also be made from the resin of fur trees. To these resins, people add a variety of essences, producing a material that burns with a sweet or fruity smell. Popular varieties include rose, honeysuckle, jasmine, and even one called Spruce Island. Named in honor of Saint Herman’s beloved Kodiak Archipelago home, this incense produces an evergreen smell.
The use of incense in the Russian Orthodox Church mirrors Alutiiq practices of cleansing with smoke. Historic sources indicate that Alutiiq men fumigated their ceremonial houses before winter festivals, using bundles of burning grass and spruce cones to cleanse the space before it was decorated with hunting gear. This set the stage for masked dancing performances, where Alutiiqs interacted with the powerful spirit world and asked for future hunting success.
Photo: Incense being burned at a Russian Orthodox service. Rostad Collection.
Ernerpak Kasnaam ernera. - Today is Independence Day.
People often think of summer as a time when communities disperse, as people move to fish camps or travel. But where resources are abundant and predictable, communities often gather in the summer. Long, warm days offer opportunities to harvest foods and to socialize. Archaeological data from the banks of Kodiak’s salmon streams suggest that Alutiiq families gathered in large groups in late summer to harvest fish. Historic accounts suggest that these gatherings were filled with visiting, eating, and game playing.
Summer gatherings are still part of the rhythm of Alutiiq communities. The Fourth of July, for example, is a popular community celebration in Kodiak villages. In Old Harbor, residents gather for a morning church service dedicated to blessing the community’s many fishermen. A blessing of the fleet follows. Boats and their crews pass slowly by the community dock to be sprinkled by holy water by a priest, then line up in the bay for a wild race back to the harbor. The rest of the day is filled with contests for all ages. Pie-eating challenges, running races, arcade-style games, and boxing matches amuse children and adults, followed by an evening bingo game and sometimes a dance.
Photo: Community members watching Juyly 4th festivities in Old Harbor.
Matarngasqat Camani amlertut. - There are a lot of Indians in the Lower Forty-eight.
When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492,he mistook the Bahamas for India and called the indigenous people he encountered Indians. The term has since come to mean an indigenous person of North America, and many people use it to refer to any person of Native ancestry. To Alaskans, however, the word Indian denotes a more specific heritage.
Anthropologists recognize three distinct populations of Native North Americans: Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts, each with a unique biological ancestry. Alaska is the only part of North America where all three populations are present. Here, people use the term Native rather than Indian to refer generally to an indigenous person. This can be confusing for people from other parts of the continent, who sometimes incorrectly apply the term Indian to Alutiiq people, calling them Alutiiq Indians.
Although the Alutiiq people are not an Indian people, Indian cultures have contributed to Alutiiq traditions. Trade with neighboring Athabaskan and Tlingit peoples brought Indian goods, stories, artwork, and even people to Alutiiq communities. Stories suggest that the Alutiiq were aware of Indian people who lived along the Pacific Coast much farther south, perhaps through long-distance trade networks. The Alutiiq word for these people literally means “naked ones,” a reference to the different clothing styles of warmer climates.
In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Alutiiq families lived with matarngasqat at Russian posts in northern California. At Fort Ross, a settlement near Jenner, Alutiiq people worked and intermarried with Kashaya Indians. The word kashaya means “expert gambler” in a Pomoan language. Anthropologists believe that the Kashaya taught Alutiiq hunters to play kaataq, a popular guessing game they brought back to Kodiak.
Map: Native North American cultural areas. Courtesy Wikipedia.
Paluqa'akamta angqiartaartukut. - When we fall down we injure ourselves.
In classical Alutiiq society, two types of healthcare providers treated the sick and injured: healers trained in the arts of acupressure, bleeding, midwifery, and the use of medicinal herbs; and shamans who sought spiritual causes for illness and restored health by identifying and appeasing angered spirits. While a healer might prescribe a steam bath, a massage, or a poultice of salmonberry bark to treat an injury, a shaman would consult helping spirits and perform a healing ritual. Healers learned through apprenticeship. Young women worked with accomplished healers to learn their arts. In contrast, communities recognized shamans for their natural ability to know the spirit world. The Alutiiq word for shaman, kalla’alek, literally means one who has a helping spirit.
Although Russian colonists opened a hospital in Kodiak in 1808, which persisted into the 1840s, western medicine did not reach many rural Native communities until the late twentieth century. In part this reflects the efficacy of the Native practitioners, who were revered for their healing abilities. But it also reflects the priorities of the new American government in Alaska. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian minister and Alaska’s general agent for education in the early twentieth century, diverted government funds for intended for health care to establish western schools.